It can be a little daunting, when someone sits down on a stage surrounded by guitars and begins to tell you his life story for 70 minutes, but Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion is more engaging than that might sound even if it still leaves one feeling a little unsated by the end.
This musical play charts Scheuer’s life from the age of 10 into his thirties. Told through stories and songs played on seven different guitars, it navigates certain milestones and events that all relate in some way to Scheuer’s family and their shared love of music.
It’s hard to describe The Lion in a way that doesn’t raise a lot of red flags: it’s a one-man play, autobiographical, it subject matter occasionally steering toward the saccharine, and the entire thing is done through song. But this is what makes its inventiveness so surprising. It’s difficult to pull this sort of thing off, but Scheuer manages it, in part because of the unassuming, subtle approach he takes when leading up to the more tragic moments of his story.
The Lion covers a lot of dark periods in Scheuer’s life — the death of his father, a swiftly evaporating relationship, an out-of-nowhere cancer diagnosis. But Scheuer doesn’t overplay these things, it never devolves into a pity party. Instead, he shifts to each misfortune with an understated, almost matter-of-fact attitude, accompanied with a dose of wry humor. It’s more, “This is what happened,” rather than, “Can you believe what I had to go through next?”
That’s not to say it couldn’t benefit from an even more clear-eyed edit. Scheuer tries a bit too hard to tie all his life events into one common thread, at times giving the impression he is striving to find meaning when perhaps there was none. His father blows up when Scheuer, at 10, asks him to teach him to play guitar like him. “Don’t be stupid!” the father says, before storming off. Scheuer ultimately derives a lesson from this exchange that, in hindsight, seems unlikely after we learn the father was suffering from depression. While it’s not for us to speculate whether that moment was just an unfortunate manifestation of his father’s illness, it is Scheuer’s job to more effectively pre-empt those kinds of thoughts among his audience.
More importantly, these problem areas weaken the emotional strength of the piece. Yes, it is alternately moving and genuinely funny, but the little shortcuts Scheuer takes in the reflective parts of the story dilute its impact at the end. It wouldn’t take much tweaking to significantly improve it, though that’s maybe more of a frustration than a consolation.
But the production, as a whole, still works, and works well. Scheuer makes excellent use of the songs themselves. Sometimes, in musicals, the songs can feel as if they exist for their own sake, like an interruption of the narrative rather than a necessary building block; Scheuer makes sure each musical number is vital. While he takes the audience through some scenes in spoken monologue, the play flows seamlessly into and out of song. And the quality of the music never falters, nor his talent with his seven guitars. He takes a theatrical form with more pitfalls than most and makes it work, for him and the story he’s telling.